Military history

Speedy Valley

AS the Allied brain trust gathered in Casablanca to plot future campaigns, the current campaign in Tunisia sputtered. Baleful weather and tenacious Germans had thwarted the Allied drive toward Tunis. Eisenhower now expected his troops to remain stalled for at least two months, and he shifted his attention farther south, with an attack plan that required the first big military operation launched in a Tunisian winter since the Punic Wars.

Operation SATIN envisioned a quick lunge across southern Tunisia to the coastal town of Gabès, 260 miles south of Tunis. A rear guard laying minefields would then block any counterattack by Rommel’s army driving from Libya into Tunisia, while the main force pushed eighty miles up the coast to capture Sfax, a small port now defended by 2,700 Axis troops with fifteen tanks. The attack was intended to prevent Rommel’s army from joining Arnim’s; it also would lure the defenders of Tunis from their breastworks and give Anderson’s mired First Army another chance to spring forward. SATIN was to be an American production, undertaken by the U.S. II Corps, which now included the 1st Armored Division, one of Terry Allen’s infantry regiments, and various other units.SATIN was bold but also perilous, and it constituted an abrupt change in theater strategy. No longer was the immediate Allied objective the capture of Tunis and Bizerte, but rather the destruction of Rommel’s army by Montgomery’s hammer bashing the enemy against the SATIN anvil. Although 437,000 soldiers and 42,000 vehicles had been landed in North Africa since November 8, Anglo-American forces in Tunisia remained thin and undersupplied. To lengthen the Tunisian battlefield would stretch Axis troops—still flowing into the bridgehead at a rate of 1,000 a day—but also the Allies. “The Allied forces now appear to be extended over a very wide front, with practically no depth to their position,” the combined chiefs observed in early January with undisguised anxiety. “This situation is fraught with danger.” A SATIN spearhead to the coast might sever Rommel from Arnim, or it might be crushed between those two German grindstones. “It looks as if the II Corps is to be bait, a sheep tied to a post,” an American staff officer wrote in early January.

Eisenhower and his staff concocted SATIN, then paid it little attention as the impending Casablanca conference and other diversions intruded. In the first two weeks of January, the proposed SATIN force grew from 20,000 men to 38,000; that meant pushing forward not 450 tons of provisions daily, but 800 tons, a task beyond the frail Allied supply system. The plan had grown “logistically out of hand,” a senior supply officer warned. Bickering persisted over the operation’s ultimate objective, and whether swinging as far south as Gabès made sense. But Eisenhower was adamant that “it was fatal to do nothing.” The attack was scheduled for the fourth week of January.

Eisenhower made several moves intended to exert tighter command over the newly configured front, none satisfactory and one ultimately disastrous. In a former Constantine orphanage, he established a forward command post from which he assumed “personal command of the battle area” despite remaining 200 miles from any fighting. As his proxy in Constantine when he was back in Algiers, which was almost always, Eisenhower summoned Lucian Truscott, the conqueror of Port Lyautey and a new major general. Because Truscott lacked the commander-in-chief’s rank and stature, his influence over the British, French, and even American contingents was largely limited to passing messages to and from AFHQ headquarters.

Mark Clark was a candidate to command American forces in southern Tunisia, but in early January he received a post “for which he has begged and pleaded for a long time,” in Eisenhower’s tart phrase: the new U.S. Fifth Army, comprising all those underemployed troops in Morocco and Algeria. George Marshall, still obsessed with the nonexistent threat from Spain, insisted the new army remain on guard against Spanish treachery, leaving the Tunisian campaign to others. “Ike doesn’t think Clark is disappointed—in fact thinks he is rather relieved as he hadn’t wanted the [Tunisian command] particularly,” Harry Butcher wrote in his diary. Some believed that Clark was indeed happy not to risk his reputation in actual combat; the British, who despised him—“very ambitious and unscrupulous,” Alan Brooke wrote privately—were happy to see him leave AFHQ headquarters.

No sooner had he taken Fifth Army—“his own manure pile,” Eisenhower called it—than Clark began fretting over his future and whether the Mediterranean war would end before he had proven himself in a battle command. At the same time, his relentless self-aggrandizement again discomfited his superiors. Eisenhower this winter had twice privately warned his old friend about the hazards of overweening ambition, and Marshall—as furrow-browed as any prophet—lectured him against self-promotion. “Clark admitted he had perhaps been overly ambitious, and would knuckle down and do the job assigned to him like the good soldier he is,” Butcher told his diary.

But who would command II Corps? Eisenhower had just the man, and in him the makings of a disaster.

“I bless the day you urged Fredendall upon me, and cheerfully acknowledge that my earlier doubts of him were completely unfounded,” Eisenhower had cabled Marshall in November. This unctuous poppycock soon would yield to resurgent doubt and then bitter regret, but for now Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall remained in good odor, not least because he was perceived to be “a Marshall man,” and of all the officers in all the world he had been chosen by the U.S. Army to lead its inaugural corps in combat against the Third Reich.

At fifty-nine, with periwinkle-blue eyes and hair the color of gunmetal, he was second oldest of the thirty-four men who would be entrusted with American corps command in World War II. Short, stocky, and opinionated, Fredendall had earned a reputation in the prewar Army as a capable trainer and a skilled handler of troops. Reporters liked him for his hail-fellow accessibility and imperturbable air—he liked to sit cross-legged on the floor at two A.M. playing solitaire, like Grant’s whittling during the Wilderness carnage. His father had been a pioneer in Wyoming Territory, eventually serving as the sheriff of Laramie and a scourge of cattle rustlers before accepting an Army commission in the Spanish-American War. Young Lloyd went off to West Point in 1901, only to flunk mathematics and depart after six months. Reappointed by a Wyoming senator, he again lasted just a semester. “A very soldierly little fellow, but extremely goaty at mathematics,” his academy roommate observed. After earning a degree, improbably, at MIT, Fredendall took an infantry commission in 1907.

Thirty-five years later he arrived in Oran during TORCH with a peaked cap perched at his trademark rakish angle, and a conviction that neither Eisenhower nor Clark wanted him in Africa since he outranked both in pre-war, permanent grade. As de facto military governor in Oran, Fredendall showed exceptional tolerance for Vichy thuggery; a prominent French Fascist received the American contract for airport reconstruction despite pronouncing himself against “the Jews, the Negroes, and the British.” When an American diplomat protested, Fredendall threatened him with arrest, thundering, “Lay off that stuff! What the hell do you know about it?” Orders issued from his headquarters in Oran’s Grand Hotel were headed, “II Corps—In the field,” which provoked hoots from those living in tents and slit trenches.

Unencumbered with charisma, Fredendall substituted bristling obstinacy. Truscott found him “outspoken in his opinions and critical of superiors and subordinates alike.” On the telephone, Fredendall employed a baffling code, which he often abandoned in mid-conversation whenever he and his auditor had become sufficiently confused. During a mid-January conversation with Truscott—whose stenographer eavesdropped on an extension—Fredendall reported:

I do not have enough MENUS…. Relative to the force at Ousseltia, it has been passed from the head ASH TRAY to a second ASH TRAY…. Everything DAGWOOD of GARDEN has been withdrawn or collapsed. I cannot spare any CLOUDS.

Translation: He was short of infantry. A unit that had been serving under a French commander was now under a different Frenchman. Forces north of Pichon had been routed. Fredendall had no extra battalions.

Fredendall also harbored the Anglophobia so common in senior American officers; II Corps became a hotbed of anti-British sentiment to the point of mocking English accents and perpetuating the calumny that “Ike is the best commander the British have.” As the corps staff checked out of the Grand Hotel for the front—the real front—a ditty circulated among them:

When the British First got stuck in the mud

And settled down for tea,

They up and beckoned for the Fighting Second

To help in Tunisee.

Lloyd Fredendall’s chosen avenue for Operation SATIN started on the eastern border of Algeria in ancient Tébessa, the walled city of Solomon the Eunuch and headquarters of Rome’s Third Legion. Nine miles southeast of Tébessa, in a sunless gulch accessible only by a serpentine gravel road, II Corps planted its flag and began staging for the grand march to the sea that would cleave the Axis armies in half. Soon Fredendall and sixty-eight staff officers had established residence in the ravine, officially called Speedy Valley but also known as “Lloyd’s Very Last Resort” and “Shangri-La, a million miles from nowhere.” Inexperienced and unusually young, the II Corps staff was dubbed “Fredendall’s kindergarten” their commander had thrown up his hands in mock horror, exclaiming, “My God, I am going to war surrounded by children!” Three thousand support soldiers—signalers, anti-aircraft gunners, engineers—infested the fir copses around Speedy Valley. “The woods are stiff with troops, and it sounds like the Battle of the Marne though no enemy is within many miles,” a lieutenant wrote. Combat units mustered farther east, toward Bou Chebka and Kasserine.

Tébessa’s high plateau was “cold as a snake,” one officer reported, adding, a few days later, “Everyone is freezing.” Perpetual shade and frequent snow squalls made Speedy Valley particularly inhospitable. Officers lived and worked in “igloos”—frigid tents with crushed stone floors—wearing every stitch they owned, including wool watch caps that “made the place look like a lumber camp,” a reporter commented. Wearing a knit balaclava with an upturned visor, Fredendall slouched in his canvas chair near a potbelly stove and studied the map, played solitaire, or gabbed with passing correspondents like a cracker-barrel clerk in a country store. He had ordered a bulletproof Cadillac similar to Eisenhower’s, and periodically called Oran to find out why the car had not arrived.

Day and night, Speedy Valley was a bedlam of pneumatic drills and jackhammers. In a most perplexing decision, Fredendall had commanded the 19th Engineer Regiment to shelter his headquarters by boring a pair of immense, double-shafted tunnels in the ravine wall. The project was like “the digging of the New York subway,” Fredendall’s aide reported. Working from a blueprint labeled “II Corps Tunnel Job,” engineers began excavating two complexes fifty yards apart, each with parallel shafts six and a half feet high, five feet wide, and braced every four feet with timbers ten inches thick. Walls and ceilings were lined with planks milled in the nearby forest and overlapped like shingles. Each complex was to be U-shaped, running 160 feet into the hillside with the parallel shafts joined at the rear by ample galleries designed for offices and a magazine. Fredendall supervised the construction with pharaonic intensity, and the gloomy ravine soon assumed a Valley of the Kings ambience. The work occupied a valuable engineering company for weeks.

Some officers believed the tunnels a prudent precaution against enemy air attack. Others—noting that Speedy Valley was seventy miles from the front, well concealed, and protected by an anti-aircraft battalion—considered the project a ludicrous embarrassment. Some questioned Fredendall’s courage. Breaking off a chat with visiting reporters at the sound of airplanes overhead, he would roll his eyes heavenward and mumble, “Some of ours, I hope.” Fredendall’s chief engineer, Lieutenant Colonel William A. Carter, later recalled, “We had no proper explosives to use for tunneling, and our men had no experience in tunneling…. But I could not convince him that it would take a long time to do what he wanted.

“To make the digging as unpopular as possible in an effort to have it stopped, I made sure the blasting was done at night to keep everyone awake,” Carter added. “But that did not stop it.”

As the Tunisian front lengthened from north to south, Allied and Axis troops jostled each other in a fringe of a fire that extended 200 miles from the Mediterranean to the Sahara. In the far south, Colonel Raff’s task force recaptured the oasis town of Gafsa, gateway to the great desert. Suspected Tunisian collaborators and looters, who sometimes could be identified by the stolen light fixtures hanging from their burnooses, were rounded up outside the pink-walled kasbah and remanded to French troops.

“Of the thirty-nine Arabs slated to be shot, only one escaped,” Raff reported. “One of them didn’t die immediately so a member of the firing squad pulled out his pistol and pumped four bullets into the man’s head at close range…. They lay in the Tunisian sunlight on view for the whole town to see.”

In the muddy north, Allied troops of different nationalities were mingled even more as Eisenhower tried piecemeal reinforcement of desperately weak French segments of the line below the Medjerda valley. Confusion was the result. Ted Roosevelt, who had been peeled away from the 1st Division on temporary duty to help the French, initially was charmed by the Byronic landscape of ancient ruins on a wind-swept tell. “You and I could have a lovely time here were it the piping days of peace,” he wrote Eleanor on January 16. But this romanticism soon clouded over. In the course of a single month, the Fighting First’s 26th Infantry had thirty-three other units attached to it, while the regiment’s 3rd Battalion noted in the daily log, “We have served under everything but the Rising Sun and the swastika.” Roosevelt wrote:

The units are all mixed—French, English, American. That makes command and coordination a major problem. To mix and fragment units is a military crime of the gravest sort…. I have done all that lies in my power. Man does what he can and bears what he must.

Among the most active outposts were five camps run by the Special Operations Executive, a British organization established in 1940 to nurture indigenous resistance groups, with help from the American OSS. Intended to bolster Anderson’s First Army and Fredendall’s II Corps, each camp was commanded by a British officer who supervised recruits drawn from Vichy concentration camps and other seedbeds of disaffection. Collectively they were known as the “Bad-Eyes Brigade,” for the unusual number of brigands in bifocals.

The senior American in the operation, Carleton S. Coon, was a corpulent Harvard anthropologist who had run guns to pre-TORCH Morocco and invented “detonating mule turds,” artistically sculpted plastic explosives that were liberally scattered on Tunisian roads to flatten German tires. Fluent in Arabic and French, Coon had taught the fine art of blowing things up to French irregulars in Aïn Taya until one of his pupils, Bonnier de la Chapelle, showed extracurricular initiative by shooting Admiral Darlan; although Coon had no discernible role in the assassination, he was given leave to disappear until Algiers cooled down. Thus had he appeared at the SOE’s northernmost post on remote Cap Serrat, forty miles west of Bizerte, under the nom de guerre Captain Retinitis and dressed in a British Army uniform with phony officer’s pips cut from the green felt of a billiard table. “Now,” a fellow saboteur observed, “the company of rogues and cutthroats is complete.”

Leading a band of fifty desperadoes, Coon blew up a railroad bridge, harassed the local Italian garrison, and scattered mule turds by the bushel. His freebooters soon specialized in seizing hostages, usually the sons of elders in villages of doubtful loyalty. The boys were imprisoned in the Cap Serrat lighthouse until their fathers provided authenticated information about enemy positions. “This use of hostages was our chief source of intelligence aside from the work of our own patrols,” Coon reported. Less successful were booby traps, which according to the professor’s accounting claimed only two casualties: “one Arab and one cow.”

From Cap Serrat to Gafsa and at all points in between, the Tunisian winter proved crueler than most Allied soldiers had imagined possible in Africa. “It is still bitterly cold and as our military with its customary dumbness did not envisage this and considered Africa as a tropical country, we are not well prepared,” Roosevelt wrote. Disclosing that “I have not changed my underclothes for twelve days,” T.R. catalogued what he was wearing: “wool union suit, then my wool trousers and shirt, then a sweater, then a lined field jacket, then my lined combat overalls, then a muffler, then my heavy short coat.” Disheveled as always, he was still freezing.

So were the tens of thousands of other soldiers whom Ernie Pyle christened the “mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys.” Supply trains could not keep pace with the battalions flooding into Tunisia, and II Corps was short of field glasses, machine guns, truck parts, and especially hot food. “If you don’t eat for three days, canned Army grub tastes like chicken,” one resigned soldier wrote home. Another offered an improvised recipe for gruel: cracked wheat and condensed milk boiled together with two rolls of Life Savers. An officer in the 1st Division reported that the battalion cook had been nicknamed Hitler. “We often wonder if all the hogs in America have been turned into Spam and all the cows into corned beef,” he added. Cattle rustling flourished; soldiers claimed that grilled beefsteak was actually “Tunisian deer” or “German chicken.”

Dysentery, parasites, trench foot, and bad teeth bedeviled those living in the open in mid-winter. So did Luftwaffe fighters. Soldiers joked bitterly about “Stuka time”—comprising nearly all daylight hours—and “Spitfire time”—the half hour or so each day during which friendly aircraft appeared. Slit trenches were dug deeper with each strafing until they became caves. Skittish soldiers often confused migrating “Messerstorks” with approaching enemy planes. After strafing caused 250 Allied casualties in one week along a six-mile stretch of road outside Medjez-el-Bab, Evelegh ordered that all vehicles destroyed in air attacks be removed from sight immediately to avoid lowering morale. Morale sank anyway.

“Never out of artillery range, mail weeks catching up, warm rations one time…. An old man at twenty,” one private wrote. Day by miserable day the troops eased themselves into combat “like an old man with chilblains getting into a hot bath,” A. J. Liebling observed. The troops also edged toward that timeless state common to veteran armies in which the men trusted no one less wretched than themselves. Still they did not hate. But each time they had to bundle up unopened mail for the dead and return it to the rear, their blood rose. An officer noticed that American artillery barrages now elicited raucous cheers. “Lay it on them!” the men yelled. “Give it to the bastards!” And the poignancy of young men dying young intruded every hour of every day. This farewell note was found in a dead pilot’s sunglasses case:

Mother, please do not grieve but rather console yourself in the fact that I am happy. Try to enjoy the remainder of your life as best you can and have no regrets, for you have been a wonderful mother and I love you. Jim.

It was enough to incite a man to murder.

As the day for SATIN drew nearer, the man who would lead the armored thrust to the coast finally stepped onto the Tunisian stage. Major General Orlando Ward, commander of “Old Ironsides”—the 1st Armored Division—had waited first in Britain and then in Oran for permission to unify his force at last. Ward had been no less irked than Terry Allen at the splintering of his division. He held Mark Clark responsible for keeping him in England while CCB landed in TORCH and headed east. “I should have begged to go instead of taking orders,” he told his diary in mid-November. Paul Robinett, eager as ever to prevent his superiors from making a mistake, fueled Ward’s anguish by telling him, “I would either go or be relieved of my command.” But Ward played the dutiful soldier, and now his moment had arrived.

Ward was a quiet, genteel man, with large sensitive eyes set in an oval face; some thought he resembled a schoolmaster more than a tank commander. Known as Dan to his family, he was Pinky to everyone else, though only graying wisps remained of his crop of red hair. “I am fifty and at times feel my age,” he had confessed a year earlier. A residual reddish cowlick grated so on George Marshall’s mania for order when Ward worked for him in the late 1930s that the Army chief had demanded, “Ward, make that hair lie down.”

Born in Missouri and raised in Denver, Ward had graduated from West Point a year ahead of Eisenhower, invaded Mexico with the 7th Cavalry in 1916, and fought five battles in France. Homesick for his new bride, Edith, he wondered whether he was better suited to farming. “The husband in me tends to make me not much of a soldier,” he told his diary. Transfer to the field artillery put to rest the farmer in him (although not the horticulturalist: as commander of a frontier post in Wyoming in the 1920s, he planted 25,000 trees). His innovations in gunnery at Fort Sill in the 1930s became the stuff of legend, including a technique that reduced the time required to concentrate the fire of twelve battalion howitzers from several hours to six minutes. (“Like squirting a hose,” he said with a shrug.) As secretary of the Army General Staff before the war, Ward so impressed the phlegmatic Marshall that the chief recommended he be immediately promoted two grades, from colonel to major general, cowlick be damned.

Ward was honest, ambitious, and emotional. “If the sermon moved him, the pew would shake,” his daughter Robin recalled. He could be irreverent, often quoting Alice in Wonderland: “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!” To a group of younger officers he had recently confessed, “It has been my observation that most generals are generally unaware of their most peculiar peculiarities.” While working in Washington, he had often visited the National Zoo to study the monkeys on the theory that their behavior would illuminate that of the primates in the War Department. An imperishable grief also marked him: When his daughter Katherine, just eighteen, had died of cancer on Christmas Day, 1938, Ward entered “a period of numbness from which I will never recover.”

Ward had two peculiarities of his own that informed his generalship. The first was a picayune Anglophobia. He likened the U.S. Army to “a pointer pup. If someone with a red mustache, a swagger stick, and a British accent speaks to us, we lie down on the ground and wiggle.” On invasion day, November 8, he wrote in his diary, “Went to church. They prayed for Empire, and the King, but not the Allies.” The destruction in Oran harbor of his armored infantry battalion during the British-led OperationRESERVISTsimply fed his prejudice. “I hate to serve under the British,” he wrote. “They have misused my troops enough already.”

The other peculiar trait was an instant willingness to take offense from General Fredendall, his superior officer. Arriving in Constantine on January 15, Ward wrote in his diary, “Went [to] corps HQ to see Fredendall. Did not see fit to see me as I waited over an hour…. Corps does not look with favor on matters I suggest.” Ward urged the concentration of Old Ironsides for maximum combat power in SATIN, but his advice was brushed aside in favor of what Ward considered a “dribbling commitment” of the division. Fredendall seemed “prone to make map judgment sans advice” by issuing orders without reconnoitering the terrain to determine if his map corresponded to reality. Ward soon concluded that Fredendall and the II Corps staff were not even studying the map carefully before drafting deployment orders “on absurd lines.”

Even as Allied leaders in Casablanca were struggling to resolve their differences in pursuit of a common purpose, the senior American commander in Tunisia and his top armor lieutenant had, with remarkable speed, cultivated a deep mutual hostility. Staff officers were surprised, then perplexed, then alarmed at this inauspicious development, explicable only in terms of personal chemistry and human folly.

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